Sunday, January 19, 2020

Cockettes Are Golden 4

On Saturday, January 4th, there was a line stretching for a block to enter the Victoria Theater on 16th Street for a 50th anniversary celebration of The Cockettes' first show on New Years Eve at the Palace Theater in Chinatown/North Beach in 1969.

The audience turned out to be half the fun just as they were at the original midnight movie Cockettes shows, including my friend Dionysio above who was one of the original gay hippies of San Francisco before becoming a Muni mechanic for decades. He recently retired and has made a full-blown return to the mystical Fairy fold.

The show started 30 minutes late because everyone in the audience refused to sit down while catching up with old friends who hadn't ventured out of their apartments for years. The complex stage set-up with a large video screen overhanging the physical performers also had technical problems, so the emcee Russell Blackwood had to improvise brilliantly at the beginning. He introduced the surviving Cockettes in attendance who were stationed on either side of the stage in front of the proscenium. Pictured above, left to right, are Tahara, Ocean Michael Moon (the literal grown-up baby who used to wander the stage in the early 1970s as an infant), the costume designer Bill Bowers, and Scotty Tissue.

Technical issues solved, Russell wound back into his stemwinder speech about New Years Eve 1969 at the Palace when a half dozen stoned, glittery, bearded characters jumped on the stage to dance around and sing to a Rolling Stones song, and suddenly the aisles at the Victoria were filled with performers jumping onto the stage, recreating the historical moment in a joyful burst of energy.

Excerpts from Palace, a 1970 silent film by Syd Dutton and Scott Runyon, documenting backstage and onstage antics of a 1970 Halloween show, Les Ghouls, was shown.

Fayette Hauser and Pam Tent offered a running commentary onstage while the film was playing, telling one crazy anecdote after another. "Remember that woman from The Committee in North Beach who liked to join us and get naked onstage? Somebody gave her a mega dose of MDA that night and she ended up passing out onstage and had to be taken off on a wheeled stretcher up the aisle. The audience thought it was all part of the show."

The filmmaker John Waters was next and upstaged everyone by offering a brilliant, rousing testimonial. "I moved to San Francisco in 1970. I didn't know anybody. I didn't know who the Cockettes were. I wanted my gutter film, Mondo Trasho, to be shown. I read about the Palace and they were talking about Nocturnal Dream Shows. And I thought, wow. Underground movies and Busby Berkeley musicals, drag shows and the Cockettes. Who in the hell were they? I went to the show but before the show even started, I was so amazed at the audience which was as shocking as the show. Hippie gay guys, finally! It was so great to see them, you know. And drag queens with beards reading Lenin. They thought the revolution really was going to happen. I knew it wasn't but I liked watching. These drag queens didn't want to be Miss America or Bess Myerson. They wanted to be Janice Joplin with a dick. And girl Cockettes. So great. Ruby Keelers on acid. Female female impersonators with full pussy power."

Waters continued: "I was in cinema heaven. You know, people think the Cockettes were noncommercial. But when I finally played the Palace, as Judy Garland used to sing, I made some money. And it helped pay back my dad who backed these movies and attracted future pot dealer financial backers. And Sebastian (pictured above, offering his own memories). I really salute you. I really, really do. Because this so-called show businessman behind the Palace shows, if you could call that showbiz, a $2 admission and half the audience sneaking in for free. And I wouldn't be here today without Sebastian's help when I first got here. He had the Secret Cinema that many people have forgotten which was another showcase, probably completely illegal theater in an old loft that showed crackpot double bills every day for the cinema insane. He's the one who booked Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs. He's the one who paid for Divine to fly out in full drag on the airplane to appear at the Palace. The day the Cockettes all met Divine at the airport in full drag. Can you imagine that today? "Is it Liberace?" the flight attendants are screaming. Imagine today if hundreds of drag queens showed up at the airport. It would be a terrorist alert. They would be locked up in a second...The Cockettes were hippies. I thought Divine would scare hippies, really. Divine was hardly a hippie. He wanted to be Liz Taylor and Godzilla in one person."

"And let's not forget drugs. "Oh, let's leave out drugs. The Cockettes were more than that," I read recently. You've got to be kidding. Not mentioning the drugs when you talk about Cockettes is like talking about New Year's Eve without liquor. We were all on drugs. And it was fun! So much so that Mink Stole and I celebrated our 50th anniversary of knowing each other by taking LSD again last year. Not those pussy micro doses you all take. This was twelve hours of hallucinations. My Mom says, "Don't tell young people to take drugs." I'm not. I'm telling old people to. If you took LSD back in the old days when you were watching the Cockettes and liked it, do it again. They can't say you're having a senior moment, you're trippin'...The Cockettes have withstood the test of time. Their legend is cemented in America's lunatic history. We all deserve ATD. Cockettes then, Cockettes now, and Cockettes forever."

Following another film with outtakes from The Cockettes, a 2002 documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber, the live theatrical section of the show resumed with dozens of performers from the recently disbanded Thrillpeddlers troupe recreating musical numbers from the original Palace shows and their own revivals at the Hypnodrome. This included a few numbers from the fabulously successful Pearls Over Shanghai with Steven Satyricon and Ruby Vixen above...

...and Birdie-Bob Watt with Earl Alfred Paus.

Jef Valentine channeled the late Divine who performed A Crab on Uranus (...means you're loved) at the Palace 50 years ago.

A Thrillpeddler favorite, Eric Tyson Wertz, sang the lead on No Nose Nanook...

...and the entire cast assembled for a tribute to Hibiscus, the LSD infused theatrical golden boy who was one of the presiding spirits of the Cockettes before returning to New York and an early death from AIDS. There were many more musical numbers over the course of the long night, but I didn't stay for them all because the first intermission was at 10:30, and like many of the survivors of that era, I'm old and wanted to sleep. Also, I knew the deplorable California Assemblyman Scott Weiner was going to be onstage in the second half handing out a proclamation and I didn't want to create a scene.

I am sorry to have missed Thrillpeddlers director and founder Russell Blackwood stepping out of his suit and into a dress for The Hot Twat of Tangier number from the musical Hot Greeks. Blackwood has been retired for over two years now, and his leadership and theatrical spirit are sorely missed in San Francisco. Together with composer, singer and Music Director Scrumbly Koldewyn (who I somehow failed to photograph on this evening), they created more than a rehashed revival of The Cockettes, forming a rowdy, sexy, funny, semi-professional theatrical troupe that had its own gestalt. It was lovely and a bit melancholy watching a tribute to the end of two different eras, and I felt lucky to have experienced a bit of both of them.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Cockettes Are Golden 3

The Thrillpeddlers revivals of Cockettes musicals from the early 1970s occasionally included a few of the original performers who had managed to survive the ensuing four decades, including left to right “Sweet" Pam, Rumi Misabu, and Scrumbly Koldeywn who reunited in 2013 for Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma. Photo by Dan Nicoletta.

The original Cockettes would just sing whatever copyrighted song they wanted to warble within a show, but that wasn't possible for The Thrillpeddlers so Scrumbly was forced to write new songs to fill in and many were wonders, including a few he wrote for Jewels in Paris, a review of songs and skits set in Gay Paree.

Koldewyn is an accomplished musician who not only composes and sings professionally, but also musically directs actors who are not trained singers in wise fashion. As Russell Blackwood, the Thrillpeddlers director told me in an interview, "Thanks to Scrumbly, we all really did get better musically over the years. Dancing, maybe not, but singing definitely."

The shows were also sensually daring in an interesting manner that usually felt less exploitive than genuinely sexy, especially since they involved bodies of all ages and genders that are still being invented.

In the ill-fated election year of 2016, they presented The Untamed Stage. The final Thrillpeddlers/Cockettes show was not a revival but a completely new show with music by Koldewyn set in Weimar Berlin. The composer noted that the musical inspiration was the songbook of Hollaender and Spoliansky, and since he wasn't able to get the rights to perform those originals for this show, Koldewyn decided to write his own new material in the style of the 20s Berlin songs. "Not to compete with Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, I chose to carry the irony and the explicitness a step or two further. However, the themes remain the same: man-devouring vamps, the blending of gender, social commentary, etc. These are songs intended to be performed with that certain Berliner attitude: "We are who we are."

The Thrillpeddlers troupe was an amazing collection of characters, and it attracted fearless young artists like Diogo Zavadzki above as a Hitler Youth who goes to the Magic Theater and transforms into a drag rock star.

The fabulous Bruna Palmeiro played The Existential Cow who is injected with an experimental Superman serum, grows phallic udders, and participates in an orgy with the Lost Boys.

Then the Nazis came in and machine-gunned the entire cast, a fitting ending for both the play and the Thrillpeddlers itself. The philanthropic owners of the small, two-story building which housed the Hypnodrome, announced the sale of the building after providing cheap rent for 13 years. (Note to arts philanthropists: Providing cheap rent is one of the greatest gifts any performing troupe can receive. If you have a favorite group of performers and some unused real estate, put them together for the good of all.)

In March of 2017, there was a huge rummage sale of wigs, costumes, props, and sets.

The sale was both a reunion of sorts and a bittersweet farewell for the troupe.

Russell Blackwood, the founder and general director of the troupe, who never asked local arts grants agencies for subsidies, announced his retirement at the sale and so far he has kept that vow. Recently I asked him what he missed most about the Thrillpeddlers and the simple answer was "the people." And what did he miss the least? "The liability," he replied. "What if somebody got hurt? What if we put on a show where nobody came and I was stuck with paying out of my pocket? It was always there at the back of my mind, and that weight has been gone for the last three years." However, after "sitting with my spouse through more hockey games on TV than you can believe," he was given permission to put together a 50th Anniversary of the Cockettes show, which occurred on the stage of the Victoria Theater in the Mission last Saturday. Stay tuned for a report on the show.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

In Pursuit of Venus (Infected)

If you get a chance, and particularly if you have an SF Fine Arts Museum membership, make sure you get to the deYoung Museum this weekend for the last two days of a 70-foot mobile mural on the second floor that's a marvel.

For years the museum has displayed a large mural of French wallpaper from the beginning of the 19th century depicting the three Pacific Ocean voyages of Captain Cook. Called Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, translated as Native Peoples of the South Pacific, it's a fanciful depiction that has light-skinned "savages" walking about Eden in classical Roman outfits.

Lisa Reihana has created an historical corrective that is the most amazing mixture of flat, two-dimensional painting and video human actors, both English sailors and South Sea natives played mostly by Maoris from New Zealand. The mural moves right to left so that there are about a half dozen vignettes happening simultaneously before rolling off the screen.

The vignettes range from confrontations to musical and dancing performances to boredom while standing at attention in a full English wool uniform to murder.

The 32-minute piece is in a constant loop and the details are worth noticing, from the minutely animated ocean waves to a painter dealing with flies as he tries to capture a dead tropical fish on canvas.

Jonathan Curiel at SF Weekly wrote a good essay on the piece recently, which is how I was alerted to the piece. In any case, try to go see the work for yourself, which closes tomorrow, Sunday, January 5th.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Favorite Musical Performances of 2019

In January, the composer Luciano Chessa presented a concert at Old First Church of music by the late Julius Eastman, climaxing with four pianists performing Crazy Nigger, a mesmerizing hour-long work that just kept getting better as it progressed.

Later in the month the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players presented a fascinating concert at the SF Conservatory of Music, starting with Ingram Marshall's 1989 A Peaceful Kingdom and ending with composer Ted Hearne above singing his own 'The Cage' Variations.

West Edge Opera crossed the bay for their annual Snapshot of operatic works in progress, with the highight being Nathaniel Stookey's monodrama Ivonne, which was given a masterful performance by soprano Marnie Breckenridge.

I missed most of the American Bach Society's concerts this year, but did attend a February performance at St. Marks Lutheran Church of various J.S. Bach cantatas which was surpassingly beautiful.

The San Francisco based Friction Quartet began a series of commissioning projects this year with a concert at the Center for New Music in April. This was followed by another great concert at Old First Church with a starry cameo by pianist Sarah Cahill premiering Gila: River, Mesa, and Mountain, a piano quintet by Max Stoffregen. The Friction Quartet are the the most wonderful mixture of technically secure and wildly musical which was an interesting contrast to the Elias Quartet, a more buttoned up UK ensemble that gave a brilliant performance of Britten's String Quartet #2 the following week in April at Herbst.

San Francisco Performances presented the Tetzlaff Trio in April at the Herbst Theater. Consisting of my favorite violinist in the world, Christian Tetzlaff, the great pianist Lars Vogt, and Christian's sister Tanja Tetzlaff on cello, they played Shostakovich's Piano Trio in E Minor, Opus 67 in a breathtaking performance. Their Mozart and Dvorak were pretty good, too.

The SF Silent Film Festival features some of the most interesting live musical performances around, and their opening night presentation of Buster Keaton's The Cameraman featured an original 2010 score conducted by composer Timothy Brock with musicians from the SF Conservatory of Music. The experience was wonderful, and made me wish the SF Symphony would augment its movie series with great silent films that were originally presented with symphony orchestras. (Start with Wings, where the percussion section would get a serious workout.)

The Other Minds Music Festival gave the world premiere of The Pressure at Yerba Buena Center in June. A strange, ambitious oratorio/multimedia event featuring a micro-tuned chamber orchestra of 23 and five vocal soloists among its forces, it was composed by Brian Baumbusch to a poetic horror narrative written by his brother Paul with projected woodblock illustrations by Spanish illustrator Fede Yankelevich. The SF Silent Film Festival should consider reviving it sometime at the Castro Theater.

At the end of the 2018-2019 season, the San Francisco Symphony announced that Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas was taking a sabbatical for heart surgery, and replacement conductors would be found. Joshua Gersen and the audience lucked out with a wonderful Steve Reich premiere, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, and Yefim Bronfman playing the stuffing out of the fiendish Prokofiev Piano Concerto #2. It was a thrilling concert.

Dvorak's Rusalka at the San Francisco Opera during the summer was the company's highlight of the year and its debuting conductor, Eun Sun Kim, was soon offered the post of SF Opera Music Director starting in 2021.

The SF Symphony imported a spectacular production of Ravel's one-act opera, L'enfant et les sortilège from Opéra National de Lyon, featuring a luxury cast, huge choruses, and magical projections by Grégoire Pont.

West Edge Opera's trio of Oakland warehouse operas this August was crowned by an incisively directed production by Mark Streshinsky of a great new opera by Missy Mazzoli, Breaking The Waves, with a taut libretto by Royce Vavrek from the dark Lars von Trier film. The soprano Sara LeMesh gave the single most impressive operatic performance I saw all year.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra under Music Director Daniel Hope has offered some strange programming this year, but one of the oddest was simply awesome, Ernest Chausson's 1891 Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet with the quartet's music beefed up for a string orchestra. Part of the fun was hearing a major work for the first time and another part was watching the 16-year-old wunderkind pianist Maxim Lindo infusing the hour-long piece with so much energy the audience walked out vibrating.

Allegra Chapman and Laura Gaynon's third annual Bard Music West festival at Noe Valley Ministry focused for two days on the music of a mid-20th century Polish composer, Grażyna Bacewicz, along with her influences and colleagues. I made it for two of the three concerts and was completely impressed both by the quality of the composer's music and the quality of the performers assembled. This festival feels like a gift.

Speaking of gifts, Céline Ricci's Ars Minerva company has been offering an annual modern world premiere of 17th century Venetian operas for five years and it just keeps getting better. This year it was the 1680 Ermelinda, composed by Domenico Freschi with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piccioli that had a superior cast that included Nika Printz, Sara Couden, and Kindra Scharich who was also extraordinary in Breaking The Waves. Congratulations, everyone, on great work.